CHICAGO -- Of 61 airports that have applied to the Federal Aviation Association to assess passenger facility charges to finance airport projects, 25 have been approved, 32 are pending, and one has been rejected, according to an airports association.
Twelve other airports have notified the FAA they are interested in applying, according to Rob Wigington, a senior vice president of governmental and legal affairs of the Airports Association Council International, which supports the fees.
But most airports, he said, are taking a "wait and see attitude" because of rating agencies' doubts about the creditworthiness of bonds backed by the fees.
In the meantime, only one carrier is challenging the fees. Northwest Airlines has filed court petitions to stop the collection at two of its hubs, according to an FAA spokesman.
Congress voted in 1990 to allow collection of passenger facility charges. A major reason was the prohibition on using federal aviation trust fund revenues to secure bonds.
The fees, ranging from $1 to $3 per enplaned passenger, apply to passengers whose flights originate at a specific airport or who make connections through the airport.
In 1990, the airports association and the American Association of Airport Executives estimated that a $3 charge on each passenger boarding a flight would mean over $10 billion of additional bonding power for the nation's 71 large and medium-sized airports.
But recent statements by Moody's Investors Service and Standard & Poor's Corp. question bonds solely secured by the charges. Fitch Investors Service has said it would review bonds backed by passenger facility charges on a case-by-case basis.
Moody's and Standard & Poor's officials have voiced worries because the FAA has the authority to cut off an airport's ability to levy the charge if the airport is found to have violated other federal regulations.
For example, John Haupert, treasurer of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, said that while the authority has applied to the FAA for a $3 charge that would raise $6.4 billion over 35 years, there are no immediate plans to issue bonds secured by the charges.
He said that once the rating agency concerns over the bonds are "sorted out," the authority would issue bonds backed by the charges alone or by a double-barrel approach.
Officials at Moody's and Standard & Poor's said they expect a $290 million revenue bond issue for McCarran International Airport in Las Vegas to be the first to be rated with a passenger facility charge component.
The issue, to be sold in August, would incorporate a double-barrel security tapping general airport revenues as well as the passenger facility charge revenues, said Randall Walker, deputy director of the Clark County Department of Aviation. The department owns and operates McCarran International.
The FAA has approved a $3 passenger fee at the airport that will raise $944 million over the next 30 years, Mr. Walker said.
If necessary, the issue would also include gambling revenues from airport slot machines, Mr. Walker said, adding that the money would be used only if general airport revenues proved insufficient to make debt payments but that they could provide enough extra security for the airport bonds to be rated investment-grade.
Meanwhile, many airports are deciding whether or not to apply for use of passenger fees.
Now that Mayor Richard M. Daley has pronounced "dead" the plans for a new airport on Chicago's southeast side, the city is revising its fee application to the FAA, said Robert Repel, special assistant to the mayor.
Mayor Daley abandoned his plans for the $10.8 billion airport when legislation to set up an Illinois-Indiana authority for the project stalled in the Illinois Senate. The measure, which also would have allowed the authority to control Chicago's O'Hare International and Midway Airports, was approved by the Illinois House on June 26.
Mr. Repel said the mayor had planned to apply $90 million in expected annual passenger facility charge proceeds toward the new airport project.
He added that the revised FAA application would state that the proceeds would be used to improve "operational efficiency and safety" at the two Chicago airports. He declined to elaborate on what projects the fees would finance.
The city is considering using the passenger facility charges to back bonds, but plans have not been finalized, Mr. Repel said.
Mr. Repel said he expected the city to file the application with the FAA by the end of the year, allowing both airports to begin collecting the fee sometime in the first quarter of 1993.
In addition to rating agencies' concerns about using passenger facility charges to back bonds, legal action by Northwest Airlines has clouded the issue of using the fees for airport improvement projects.
In June the airline filed petitions asking the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington, D.C., to set aside the FAA's orders authorizing collection of fees at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International and Memphis airports, according to Doug Miller, a spokesman for Northwest Airlines. The cities serve as hubs to the carrier.
Moody's officials have said such legal challenges could make it more difficult for airports to seek double-barrel security for bonds if airlines that oppose the charges must approve the use of an airport's general revenues to supplement a bond issue backed by the charges.
Northwest says that passenger facility charges are not necessary to finance airport improvements because a $7 billion federal aviation trust fund, currently used to prop up the federal deficit, was created for the purpose.
Mr. Miller added that the fees also pose a competitive disadvantage to airlines, such as Northwest, that service passengers at airports that assess the fees. Mr. Miller said Northwest currently is absorbing the fees assessed in Minneapolis-St. Paul to remain competitive with airlines at other airports, such as O'Hare International in Chicago, that do not assess the fee.
Minneapolis/St. Paul Airport began collecting passenger facility charges June 1 and Memphis Airport was approved by the FAA to begin assessing the fee August 1.
Steve Busch, finance manager for the Minneapolis-St. Paul Metropolitan Airports Commission, has said the commission does not plan to issue debt off of the fees.
Mr. Miller said the court is expected to inform all interested parties of a schedule to file briefs on the case in the next month. He said Northwest officials have not decided whether they will proceed past the petition phase of the legal action.
Northwest filed the petition despite being the recipient of a $620 million taxable and tax-exempt bond package that Minnesota and the Minneapolis-St. Paul Metropolitan Airports Commission agreed to issue to help refinance the airline's debt and build two Northwest maintenance facilities in the state.